The Morality of Karma
Within the pages of The Mutable Dilemma we often make the background assumption of reincarnation, with very little discussion of its ramifications. We do not actually know how many of our readers accept reincarnation as a reasonable hypothesis and how many do not. I was intrigued to note that a recent poll found 23% of adult Americans saying they believe in reincarnation (and 28% of teen-agers). The same survey found 42% of adults saying they had been in contact with someone who died (usually a spouse or a sibling). In 1973, only 27% of adults admitted to such an experience. The 1984 survey also listed 67% of adults reporting ESP experiences (up from 58% in 1973). [All of the above statistics come from an article “Can Churches Resist Pull of Paranormal” in the February 14, 1987 issue of the Los Angeles Times.]
There are many different theories about reincarnation and how it works. I certainly do not have final answers. I do, however, have some questions and concerns as a counseling astrologer. A belief in reincarnation affects the counseling one offers as an astrologer. Particularly important is our vision of how reincarnation operates. The following are some of the differing theories I’ve noted in the literature and among people who believe in reincarnation. After the theories, I list some of the issues they raise and some potential pitfalls for the counseling astrologer.
EYE FOR AN EYE: this approach presents reincarnation as a literal accounting of past misdeeds and good deeds. If you murdered in the past life, you will be murdered this time. If you were unfaithful to a spouse last time, you will be married to an unfaithful spouse this time. If you molest someone, you will be molested, etc.
This approach is one I am inclined to reject. It seems too simplistic. It also seems self-perpetuating. If each murderer has to be murdered yet again, are we not constantly forming new murderers? Circumstances, apparently, do not matter. (Is a murder in self-defense the same as a murder in cold blood, etc.?)
It appears the most deterministic of the systems. Events and many selections in life (spouse, family, etc.) are “pre-set” with no personal control or power. As a counselor, I am very leery of systems which deny personal responsibility and power.
Yet there is no denial that the “pure justice” of this approach appeals to many. It is straightforward and there are no doubts. If you do wrong, you are punished; if you do right, you are rewarded. It leaves many doubts in my mind, however. What is “right” and what is “wrong.” Can there be circumstances where “murder” is justified? Are moral judgments really that simple in the universe?
SCHOOL OF LIFE: this approach presents life as learning. Everything in life is grist for the mill of education. Life is generally seen as an evolutionary spiral: we grow and evolve toward increasing awareness and love. Moral assumptions generally revolve around doing good rather than evil. Definitions of good and evil depend on the individual doing the defining. Usually the assumption is that the faster we learn, the easier and more painless life is. The slower we learn, presumably, the harder and more painful life is. With the SCHOOL approach, it is assumed you can learn some things vicariously (not having to directly experience them). As we go on to higher “grades,” we handle more and more of life.
THEATER OF LIFE: this approach assumes that we all must eventually experience ALL facets of being human. We continue to reincarnate until we have played ALL roles—the murderer as well as the murder victim, the most fortunate and the most degraded of existences possible on the earth plane. Evolution is assumed to come through experience and the full cycle requires that we experience everything.
Several other questions about “how does it work” exist. For example, some people believe that we CHOOSE everything about our lives: the time period to return, the family we enter, the body we get, etc. (These people are more apt to follow a SCHOOL or THEATER approach. The EYE FOR AN EYE approach is the most deterministic of all the systems. There is very little room for free will within it.) Other people suggest that we only choose to come back. Once have made that choice, we then “get what we have earned.” (This can fit any of the three systems. The “pure justice” of an EYE FOR AN EYE, although it seems simplistic to me, has much appeal to people. Those following the SCHOOL theory use the metaphor of “A third grader goes on to fourth grade, while the high school graduate can then attend college.” The THEATRICAL group would figure out what roles have not yet been played and step into one of those.) Still other approaches assume that we have no choice whatsoever, that, as long as we are on the wheel of reincarnation, it turns automatically.
There are additional complications. Some theories throw out our concept of linear time (e.g., Jane Roberts in the Seth material). They suggest we are living all our lives (past, present and future) at once and all of them are co-influencing each other. This is beyond my capacity to grasp, but further complicates the issue of cause-and-effect. It makes it more difficult to see underlying order and fairness (which is the major appeal for me, and I think, for many people, found in reincarnation).
Another variation includes the concept of an Oversoul—that we are not truly individual beings. Rather, the theory goes, there are a number of Oversouls and each one separates into many human beings when reincarnating. Thus, we have not just our own personal karma to deal with, but we really share the karma of our whole Oversoul group, because we are all one, just seeming separated. The same Oversoul might, for example, include both a murderer and that murderer’s victim.
What then, are the ramifications for counselors (and all astrologers who interpret charts are, to some extent, counselors)? There is a psychologist named Lerner who formulated the “just world” hypothesis. This is the idea that most people prefer to believe the world is just and fair (especially as it gets more and more complicated). I believe the appeal of fairness is a major attraction of reincarnation. I know it is for me. Otherwise, how terribly unfair that in a one-shot deal I am born a white, healthy American while someone else is born a handicapped individual in a war-torn country. The problem was, Lerner noted, that many people who believed in a “just world” reacted by “blaming the victim.” That is, if we assume that the world is indeed fair, then many assume people have brought their troubles upon themselves. Herein lies the myth that women who are raped somehow “asked for it” and many other less-than-compassionate responses.
I have seen (and heard) astrologers respond, dismissively, “It’s your karma.” I know of cases where individuals were advised to stay in painful, abusive situations because “it’s your karma for your cruel behavior in a past life.” I have heard people excuse less than wise behavior as “we have a karmic tie” as if that meant they could not change or do things differently.
If anyone truly believes in an EYE FOR AN EYE, little personal power is likely. That approach assumes one must just take one’s punishment and wait for a chance to do better later. The THEATER approach, if applied deterministically, can assume that one MUST suffer—at least as long as one is playing that particular role. However, personal beliefs about how long is appropriate for each role, and whether one can change roles in mid-life would have an important influence here. The SCHOOL approach suggests that change is always an option. There is no good reason to stay “stuck” in painful patterns. One can learn more—and do differently. If the THEATER approach is applied flexibly, change is also possible there.
Most of us, if we came upon someone in quicksand up to the chest, would not respond, “You got yourself into it; get yourself out.” Neither would we (I hope!) walk into the quicksand with that person. I trust we would have the good sense and compassion to find a rope to throw them and figure out a way to pull them out (if they’re willing to hang onto the rope). Why then, are we so willing to say, “It’s your karma!”? Isn’t it at least possible that the person’s present karma includes assistance from another person to help solve the problem, whether the assistance is mental (insight) or material aid? If we fail to offer helpful insight, we may be producing some negative karma (future consequences) for ourselves.
The issue of choice is also an influence here. People who believe certain things are “fated” and cannot be avoided are more likely to feel some sympathy for the person undergoing those events. People who believe that we choose everything in our lives are more likely to refuse to “interfere” and to assume that the pain is serving a purpose for the individual and will be valuable in the end.
A time-frame also becomes important. People who see the past as awesome and powerful tend to feel tied into karmic patterns. They see little or no potential for change. People who see time as non-linear may be more likely to assume present change can affect what has been and what will be. But, even if we accept time as a one-way linear flow (at least in this world), we can change future Karma (consequences) by changing present attitudes and actions. If we believe that character (habitual attitudes and actions) creates destiny (Karmic consequences), today’s actions can change tomorrow’s results. If I believe that my tendency to give away power and undervalue myself attracts me into abusive relationships, I can change myself and change my life. If I believe I attract abusive relationships because I was abusive myself in the past (and thus “deserve” the punishment) or because I chose to experience the role of being abused for this time around, I am unlikely to try to change. (Even without a belief in reincarnation, it is possible to feel so worthless or unlovable or helpless that nothing we can do will earn the right to be loved and treated well. Or we can feel that suffering will earn a reward in heaven, or that it shows some other kind of moral superiority).
The questions go on and on. The beliefs we hold about karma strongly affect the hope (or fear) we offer to our clients and the assumptions we make about their lives. Here are a few questions which I hope readers who believe in reincarnation will examine in terms of their approach:
(1) How literal (if at all) is karma? (Is there an “eye for an eye” component? Is it just consequences, good, bad, or indifferent?)
(2) Is reincarnation a process of gradually changing and evolving, working ourselves up—or is it a process of experiencing opposites? Or both somehow?
(3) How much do we choose about each life? Is it possible the degree of choice always varies depending on the consciousness of the soul? (High school graduates have more choices for higher education).
(4) Is life about punishment and reward; about learning; about experiencing?
(5) What is moral? How do we judge what is right or wrong karmically?
(6) If we choose our lives, why would anyone choose a life of misery and horror?
(7) If we don’t choose our lives, how much free will do we have?
(8) Does my belief in reincarnation offer hope, power and personal responsibility to my clients—or does it offer limits, restrictions, helplessness, passivity and dead ends? Or is life a mixture of some personal power and some limits—laws that are bigger than personal will? Does growth imply increasing knowledge and personal power and shrinking but never totally removing limits?
(9) Where does compassion fit in with justice? Do outer limits end when self-imposed limits replace them, when we experience the oneness of the whole which prohibits any harm to others, seeing it as harm to oneself?
P.S. Many astrologers associate Karma with letter twelve, but its definition of “consequences of prior action” and coercive power that is beyond personal power suggests that the concept is closer to letter ten. It is true that all water letters, four, eight, and twelve, carry some of the feeling associated with Karma; the sense of things happening that we have not consciously chosen or produced. But that is because water symbolizes the unconscious and we are often unaware of our buried fears and desires which are producing events in our lives, or we have forgotten the trains of consequences which were set in motion in the past. Understanding letter ten as Karma helps us to see that there are laws that are part of being in a body, in a particular culture and time in history. Laws do set limits and bring consequences when they are opposed. But when we understand and work with the laws, we increase our personal power. And as we internalize the laws and become self-disciplined, we no longer need the outer limits or power figures to enforce them. We can live at peace with Karma, working cooperatively to produce a better world.